Friday, 14 August 2015

BCLT / Writers Centre Summer School
Translating Poetry 5 Salomoni / Ramat

Bronzino: Allegory of Venus and Cupid

Chiara Salomoni speaks several languages. She is herself a poet who now lives in London but is Italian.  Beside Italian and English she also has French, Spanish and Chinese. Her poems are written in English and she is particularly attentive to the music of poetry.This music, for her (as I understood it), was mostly a matter of sound formation and of echo, the way a part-rhyme or an alliteration shifts across lines, and something to do with pace as well. The question of metre and prosody were probably a little behind those main considerations.

The poet she wanted to work on was Silvio Ramat (the link is to the Wiki translation of an Italian Wiki page so beware). She translated two of his poems but the one we spent most time on was Come Guardare, published fairly recently, in 2007. Here it is. I am pleased that Silvio Ramat has approved its appearance on this blog.

Come guardare
una vetrata dipinta, una tela,
un affresco, un cartone -
essere in due,
accesi, dentro, da un’idea di pioggia
(fuori, la grande aria della città)
stringersi a contemplare non capire
forse le stature le allegorie
dirsi quel che si sa o che si presume
memoria e fantasia facendo lume
e sentirsi pareti così tènere
da penetrarvi il chiodo detto amore.

Chiara had sent ahead a preliminary translation and some notes, as here:

How to look
a stained glass window, a canvas,
a fresco, a cartoon -
lit. being two people/the two of us
burning from the inside, for a thought of rain
(outside the large air of the city)
clung together to admire without understanding
maybe the stature/importance the allegory
telling each other what we know or what we guess
our memory and imagination throwing some light
and feeling walls so soft
to pierce that nail called love.

1) in Italian the verbs are infinitive while in English is not possible to use the infinitive in this case
2) I am not sure if ‘large’ works here (also in Italian ‘grande’ used together with ‘air’ is unusual)
3) ‘forse le stature le allegorie’ translated with ‘maybe the stature/importance the allegory’. Do you have any suggestions for this line?
4) In the last two lines there is an anthises (walls so soft/ to pierce...) Would it work for you?

She read us the poem in Italian twice. We began by wondering where we were and what was going on. Were we with two lovers who are contemplating their relationship to the art they have seen in the context of the world outside? Was it primarily a poem about love, or about art? What did the art have to say about love and what was that mysterious paradoxical image at the end where soft walls pierce nails?

Taking the poem line by line we began with the question of where. In a church or a gallery? There were doubts about the word cartoon. It might make some people think of strip cartoons or cartoon films. Having taught art history for a good number of years I simply assumed the poem meant cartoon in the sense of the Leonardo cartoon, that is to say a preparatory work for something not yet started but it is a mistake to think that everyone knows what one knows (on the other hand no one knows everything, not even the poet). Then there was the issue of essere in due and the use of the infinite, and various possibilities suggested themselves here. But what did it mean to burn inside for a thought of rain. Was it love, desire, or the passion for art that was burning? Was there a desire for rain? For a thought of rain? Was rain symbolic in the way it is in romantic films, a mixture of the mystical and the erotic? We discussed the function of the allegory in the poem. What was the allegory? What was an allegory for what? Was it a specific painting. Was it like Bronzino's Allegory (see above) I wondered.

And was the grande aria a reference to music or was it simply the air, as simply the big or large air, and if it was what actually is large air? Is it to do with the size of the city, the natural world outside the confines of art, the idea of an endless air? Fortunately (though only after the course was over) Chiara was able to get in contact with the poet himself and ask whether he meant aria as in an opera. He said no. (Having living authors to hand is an advantage in many ways though not invariably so. The text is less a matter of the author's specific intention, or even of what the author happened to be thinking when a line occurred to him or her, than in what the words say and suggest.)

Lastly, the great puzzle of the end where a soft thing pierces a hard thing. In reverse it might be read in terms of sexual penetration but Chiara didn't think so. However we read it it remained enigmatic. Perhaps the most persuasive notion was the possibility that the idea of love, as communicated in the allegories, was a source of 'soft power' that might alleviate or redeem the hard imperatives of desire or simply romantic love.

This is the version, after all the discussion and hard thinking, that Chiara sent on after the course.

How to look
a stained glass window, a canvas,
a fresco, a drawing -
it takes two
burning, inside, an idea of rain
(outside the large air of the city)
to cling to admire to not understand
maybe the statures the allegories
telling each other what we know or what we guess
memory and imagination shedding light
and feeling like walls so soft
they pierce that nail called love.

This version shortens breath and has grown in ardency as a result. It sings and has music.

But one could discuss the poem and its translation for ever. The analogy I often used in conversation was the mixing deck in music. You can turn up this or that instrument within the poem. Finally you settle on something because it sounds right, or persuasive, or powerful. That's as good as it gets. If the original poem turns out to be attractive to other translators their own remix will provide a slightly different experience. As of course will the original poem to its various Italian readers.

The image we occasionally returned to was the Venn diagram where the combined overlaps indicated broad agreement as to the 'location' and 'core' of the poem, those versions with some element in the common overlap indicated individual readings and those outside all of them suggested an idiosyncrasy of some sort.

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